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Big Legal Win for Trans Academic

Federal jury awards $1.165 million, finding discrimination in tenure denial by Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

November 21, 2017
 

A federal jury on Monday found that Southeastern Oklahoma State University discriminated against Rachel Tudor in denying her tenure, and ordered the university to pay her $1.165 million.

The case has become a pivotal one in the area of transgender rights. Tudor, who is transgender, sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars gender discrimination, among other forms of bias, in employment. Tudor and her supporters argued that the discrimination she faced as a transgender woman was a form of discrimination barred by Title VII. In a move that was hailed at the time by advocates for transgender people, the Obama administration backed her claim in 2015 and said that she had been a victim of bias under Title VII. But the Trump administration has reversed that policy and stated that discrimination against trans people is not covered by Title VII.

The Justice Department under Obama said that the case demonstrated clear evidence of anti-transgender bias. Among the facts stated by the Justice Department at the time:

  • Tudor was hired in 2004, at the time identifying as male. In 2007, she started to present herself as a woman. And it was in 2007 and later that she experienced discrimination.
  • A vice president of the university asked a human resources employee whether Tudor could be fired because her gender identity offended his religious beliefs. (The human resources official answered in the negative, but the vice president played a role in Tudor's tenure review.)
  • A dean, in a meeting with Tudor about her tenure bid, repeatedly used the wrong pronouns to refer to Tudor, despite being told of her status and despite her being in the room.
  • A tenure review committee in her department (English) and her chair recommended her for tenure and found she met all the university's criteria.
  • The dean and vice president referenced above reversed that decision without offering an explanation.
  • Both the dean and the vice president refused to meet with Tudor to discuss her case so she could appeal to the president for tenure. In refusing to meet her, they broke with practice at the university of holding such meetings, which have resulted in cisgender people winning tenure.

Sean Burrage, president of Southeastern Oklahoma State, issued a statement Monday that made no reference to whether discrimination had taken place. "Southeastern Oklahoma State University places great trust in the judicial system and respects the verdict rendered today by the jury. It has been our position throughout this process that the legal system would handle this matter, while the university continues to focus its time and energy on educating students," said the statement.

Jillian Weiss, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said via email that the case was significant for transgender professors. "This ruling is very important for the rights of transgender professors because it shows that protection is granted under federal law, and it does not matter where in the country you are located," Weiss said. "A fair-minded jury in Oklahoma found that the actions of the university were impermissible under federal law."

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